Cleveland Indians fans were rightfully a little gun shy about big free agents after the failed experiment that was Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. But now, just four years after signing the outfield pair to a deal worth a combined $104 million, the Indians signed first baseman Edwin Encarnacion to the biggest contract in team history.
Even the three-year, $60 million deal the Indians inked with Encarnacion was considered a bargain for one of baseball's most consistent hitters over the last five seasons. The 34-year-old has already spit in the face of regression heading into his mid-30s — his wRC+ has not dipped below 130 since 2011 and just last season he hit 42 home runs, tied for a career-high. But how long can it last?
To answer that, and a similar question for many Indians players, we turn to our annual projections series, where I take a look at what two of the most popular projection systems — Steamer Dan Szymborski's ZiPS — think of the Indians for the upcoming season.
First up: the catchers and infielders.
As always with these projections, keep in mind that Steamer constantly updates their information for more accurate projections. Things like playing time will be shifted throughout the offseason, so if you find this article in mid-July, they probably look a lot different than when I am writing this post now in March (also, future person, please say hi to baseball for me. I hope things are going well). Conversely, ZiPS does not care about who will be a starter or bench player, by design. Playing time is purely based on minor league numbers and past numbers in the majors. That's why someone like Erik Gonzalez, who is most definitely going to be a backup on the Indians, is pegged for 531 plate appearances.
For Yan Gomes (and in a few moments, Roberto Perez) regression is a good thing. No player wants to be mired in the .167/.201/.327 swamp that was Gomes’s 2016 season, let alone do it twice in a row. If ZiPS and Steamer are to believed, Gomes is in for quite the bounce back season. ZiPS’ 81 wRC+ would be the highest for Gomes since 2014 — his first and only season playing in more than 100 games — and his projected 13 home runs would be second only to the 21 he hit in the same year.
Now the downside. Neither of these systems know that Gomes was injured last season. They both just see that he missed time and are adjusting, so their optimism might be misplaced if the shoulder injury Gomes suffered last season is still bugging him into 2017.
Similar to Gomes, Roberto Perez wants anything better than how he hit in 2016. While never an All-Star bat to begin with, Perez’s .183/.285/.294 slash was a new low; neither projection system see him quite that bad again. Steamer is the more optimistic system this time around, putting Perez at a .222/.315/.351 slash for a wRC+ of 81. Both ZiPS and Steamer realize Perez’s ability to draw walks, though they both see him striking out more than the 23.9 percent whiff rate he had last season.
ZiPS also has Perez playing in 12 more games than Steamer, but with a much lower BABIP (.274 compared to Steamer’s .290). In essence they are the same projection, but Steamer has more balls squeaking by for base hits, while ZiPS thinks ‘Berto will be a bit unlucky.
Whether or not Carlos Santana stays with the Indians after 2017, this is a contract year for the 30-year-old first baseman. Terry Francona has already given him the job at first, and both projections systems think he will hit just fine there (defense is another story). Neither have him crossing the 30 dinger mark again, but Steamer’s 26 home runs would be the third-highest in Santana’s seven-year career.
Despite the fact that Santana has not played in fewer than 150 games since 2012, both systems have him below that threshold (ZiPS at 142, Steamer at 146). ZiPS and Steamer both project him to walk more than he did last season as well, which is not surprising — Santana’s 14.4 percent walk rate was a career-low. However, if Santana made a legitimate change to his swing to get that extra power boost, maybe he will start trending toward fewer walks.
Neither projection system utilizes hit location, but Santana did start shooting balls to center more often last season. His pull rate was also 52.9 percent, the second-lowest of his career. If that trend continues, he might be able to outpace the sub-.260 batting average projections.
The crown jewel of the Indians offseason, Edwin Encarnacion has a lot of expectations on him in his new home. After hitting a career-high 42 home runs last season, ZiPS and Steamer see him coming back down to earth with fewer than 33 home runs. And that’s perfectly understandable, no player heading into their age-34 season should be getting better. For most players at this point in their career, it should be about getting one more great year and mitigating the inevitable decline.
However, Edwin is not like most players. He has stayed incredibly consistent throughout his 30s, as discussed in the intro, and he can still draw walks with the best of them. If there is an issue, it’s strikeouts. Even with a bit of regression from the 19.7 percent whiff rate of 2016, projections have Edwin striking out about 18 percent of the time, which — prior to 2016 — he had not done since 2009.
I wish I could be like ZiPS and Steamer and not know that Jason Kipnis is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury. I wish I could just look at his incredible numbers last season and say “well that power outburst was insane but he is still going to be a really good hitter.” Unfortunately, I can’t.
ZiPS and Steamer have Kipnis at a 107 and 104 wRC+, respectively. Kipnis finally bucked the “good every other year” tag with his 117 wRC+ 2016 campaign, but maybe the curse has shifted to every third year? Projections seem to think so.
It took a couple seasons, but projection systems are finally warming up to Francisco Lindor in a big way. Steamer has him barely regressing from last season, offensively, and ZiPS thinks he will actually get a touch better and set a new career-high mark for home runs. Both have him walking less and striking out more, though — power is where they see him making the biggest difference.
Throw out those WAR totals, though. Both systems see Lindor’s defense regressing, which probably is not going to happen.
Projection systems love The Angry Hamster. They have him regressing from his breakout season, which is understandable. Namely his power takes a hit with his slugging percentage dropping about 40 percent from 2016. He still finishes with the same amount of home runs, but Steamer has him only hitting 34 doubles and ZiPS has him at 37 — not quite the second-most-in-the-AL 46 he hit last season.